The key to understanding the work of Lyttelton-based artist Marie Le Lievre is that everything depends on an interplay between what is revealed and what the artist obscures, a dialogue between private inscape and public world. Le Lievre is intensely interested in the psychological and sociological – her first degree was in criminology rather than fine art – and on some levels her art operates as a kind of mind map of emotional and mental states. It is intuitive, automatic, and richly nuanced. It reminds us of the contingency of communication and the impossibility of true connection between isolated minds: an adjacent visual accompaniment to Wittgenstein’s Seventh Proposition: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Le Lievre’s work divides into five loosely overlapping categories. One is the sensitive drawings; another is the painted-on photographic self-portraits. A third is the “writing” works and fourth the “paraphernalia” paintings with their stylised motifs. Fifth are the “slip” paintings, in which layers of translucent oil pigment are poured onto the canvas flat on the floor and worked by the artist with gloved hands in a very physical process. This latter group of works may be further divided into “summer” and “winter” works. The summer ones are often bold, while the winter ones make use of long drying times to create the flickering flamelets and neural dendrites of colour that peep around the edges of large areas of dark, black translucent paint, deep like the infinite night and full of stars.
The unifying feature of Le Lievre’s diverse bodies of work are the biomorphic areas of paint that float through the works like independent lifeforms, or secretive thought and speech bubbles (figurative in the paraphernalia paintings) –containing something rarely revealed.
In the drawings they are layered gesso and paint that support the drawing, meditations on nostalgia, the unconscious, holistic medicine and eastern spiritual practices, à la Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse.
In the photographic self-portrait works, they hover and obscure like ectoplasm, moods, psychological states, or dreams. Awkward and uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, but ultimately healing in a search for wholeness, they speak of art’s consolations and the anxieties of an artist and solo mother.
In the writing works, forms are either to be contained in a scaffolding of drawn lines that are sometimes words, and sometimes only abstract tangles that merely hint at written language. At other times they are to be “written” on in asemic scratches into the surface like lines of text. They recall the drawings of Cy Twombly and hint at a hidden and private visual syntax that we, as viewers, can intuit as being there, but it remains above our reach.
The artistry lies not in a critical evaluation of gesture, expression and mark, but in the codification and execution of Le Lievre’s private logic cumulatively and obliquely defining the paradoxes of human experience. “But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen.” – T. S. Eliot.
More straightforwardly analytical and communicative are the paraphernalia paintings. Here the areas of colour are containers as in the “bag” series or the “tray” series. In the bag series they are literal baggage – symbolic feelings, desires and frustrations trapped and safely (at least temporarily) contained so that they can be sorted through, understood and connections made between them. Lautréamont’s “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella” – the rallying cry of the surrealists, is apt for the trays as W. B. Yeats puts it, “the unpurged images of day recede.” The closest artistic forebear is, perhaps, Frances Hodgkins’ 1935 Self-Portrait: Still Life where the artist reduces herself to a collection of possessions.
Recalling Helen Frankenthaler, the slip paintings are heroically scaled. The artist must use her entire body to work the pigment in frozen records of action, endurance and aesthetic. The fast-drying summer paintings are retinal candy that reveal Le Lievre to be a colourist of considerable refinement. Their intense emotions are worn on their sleeve.
The winter paintings tend to be more of a sombre and philosophical affair, great dark forms as storied and evocative as Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic or Pierre Soulages unyielding black bars, but of multilayered strata shot through with lustres, craquelures and other effects, enigmatic as the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the vast, deep ocean of the collective unconscious from which Jungian gods furtively, fleetingly, partially reveal themselves.
By far the most subtle and nuanced aspect of Le Lievre’s work, each of these paintings is a philosophical treatise. Light and colour escape the darkness of existential angst. There are scars in the blackness too like an emotional shadow over the human condition. They obscure the transcendent “true” reality beyond. Isis remains veiled.